Published on Thursday, May 9, 2002 in the New York Times
More Guns for Everyone!
by Bob Herbert
Let's see. What America needs is more guns in the hands of more people, right?
That would almost certainly be the result of a new and potentially tragic initiative by John Ashcroft's Justice Department. In a reversal of federal policy that has stood for more than 60 years, the department told the Supreme Court this week that individual Americans have a constitutional right to own guns.
That sound you hear is the National Rifle Association cheering.
The N.R.A. has seldom had a better friend in government than Mr. Ashcroft. That was proved again on Monday when the Justice Department, in a pair of briefs filed with the court, rejected the long-held view of the court, the Justice Department itself and most legal scholars that the Second Amendment protects only the right of state-organized militias to own firearms. Under that interpretation, anchored by a Supreme Court ruling in 1939, Congress and local governmental authorities have great freedom to regulate the possession and use of firearms by individuals.
In the briefs, submitted by Solicitor General Theodore Olson, the department boldly and gratuitously asserted, "The current position of the United States, however, is that the Second Amendment more broadly protects the right of individuals, including persons who are not members of any militia or engaged in active military service or training, to possess and bear their own firearms, subject to reasonable restrictions designed to prevent possession by unfit persons or to restrict the possession of types of firearms that are particularly suited to criminal misuse."
The move was gratuitous because there was no need for the government to take a position on the Second Amendment in the two cases for which the briefs were submitted. In both cases the Justice Department is defending gun laws. In one case it agrees that a man under a restraining order because of domestic violence should not be allowed to have a gun, and in the other it is opposing the appeal of a man convicted of illegally possessing machine guns.
The reference in the briefs to restrictions on "firearms that are particularly suited to criminal misuse" is interesting, and disingenuous. No gun is more suited to criminal misuse than a handgun, and that's exactly the type of weapon that Mr. Ashcroft and his N.R.A. pals are trying to make available to more and more American men and women.
I had a .45-caliber pistol hanging low on my hip many years ago when I was in the Army. And I can tell you, I'm not anxious to think about that kind of weapon (or something smaller and easier to conceal) being in the pockets and the purses and the briefcases and the shoulder holsters of the throngs surrounding me in my daily rounds in Manhattan.
How weird is it that in this post-Sept.-11 atmosphere, when the Justice Department itself is in the forefront of the effort to narrow potential threats to security, the attorney general decides it would be a good idea to throw open the doors to a wholesale increase in gun ownership?
Mr. Ashcroft telegraphed this transparently political move nearly a year ago in a letter to the N.R.A, which just happened to have been a major Ashcroft campaign contributor. The letter went from Mr. Ashcroft, who was already the attorney general, to the N.R.A.'s chief lobbyist, James J. Baker. Mr. Ashcroft wrote, "Let me state unequivocally my view that the text and the original intent of the Second Amendment clearly protect the right of individuals to keep and bear firearms. While some have argued that the Second Amendment guarantees only a `collective right' of the states to maintain militias, I believe the amendment's plain meaning and original intent prove otherwise."
Now that view is the policy of the Bush administration. It will encourage aficionados and accused criminals to challenge gun control laws on constitutional grounds.
"Now defendants are going to try to make this Second Amendment argument, relying in part on Ashcroft's position," said Mathew Nosanchuk, the litigation director for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington group that advocates gun control.
The center has pointed out that in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 28,874 Americans were killed with guns.
Neither Mr. Ashcroft nor the N.R.A. seems particularly concerned.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company